by Irvin Muchnick
Over the weekend, Salon published my article pulling together some of the details on the University of California-Berkeley’s cover-up of the 2014 death of Ted Agu, from exertional sickling, during football offseason conditioning drills. From there, the article widens the lens to the unfortunately muted national discussion of what I call the socially induced pandemic of non-traumatic deaths among non-professional boys and young men at all levels of our out-of-control football industry — with particular reference to the stormy cultural marriage between football and young Black males.
See “Football’s unknown epidemic: When Black players die suddenly, the cover-up begins,” https://www.salon.com/2021/11/13/footballs-unknown-epidemic-when-black-players-suddenly-the-cover-up-begins/.
A related and rather stunning news development was playing out almost simultaneously: Fort Scott Community College in Kansas announced that it was ending its football program. For a good detailed rundown, see the coverage in the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Fort Scott football program ends amid secrecy, player death, coaching turnover and limited resources,” https://www.cjonline.com/story/sports/college/football/2021/11/14/fort-scott-community-college-football-program-canceled-kansas-juco-player-death-tirrell-williams/6356978001/.
I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of the Fort Scott story. Most especially, I don’t want to convey to readers that I think this presages some quick end game for the football system. My perspective on football’s future is clear; as I write in the Salon piece, it needs drastic downsizing in the name of public health. “[O]ur society would be wise to confine [it] to a gladiator class certified to provide late-empire mass divertissement. Football belongs out of our public schools. It belongs off our public fields.”
But football is not going to be cut down to size, or substantially at all, overnight. The general public is too ignorant of the sport’s toll, or too much in denial. The sport is just too damn popular. I am not one to hype either projected or real evidence of a decline in participation by certain population groups, or anecdotal jettisoning by a handful of suburban high school athletic departments.
The Fort Scott story, however, really is significant, for two reasons.
First, it involves some specific links to the fallout from the 2018 exertional heatstroke death of Braeden Bradforth at Garden City, another Kansas community college. One big and obvious link is Jeff Sims, the coach who killed Bradforth; one of Sims’s many previous coaching stops was Fort Scott. (For a full taste of our dozens of stories on what was nothing less than the unindicted manslaughter of Bradforth at Garden City — beyond the couple of paragraphs in my Salon piece — plug his name into the search tool on the archives page of this website.)
The other significant factor in the Fort Scott story is the profile of the school. Five years ago, Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California, dropped football. At least three alumni of this school, including former star San Francisco 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer, later a color analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts, had gone on to the National Football League. So there was something of a legacy there. Still, Mission San Jose’s student body is predominantly White or Asian, not Black.
Fort Scott is different. It was deeply embedded in the “Last Chance U” ethos of Kansas community college football, with not only deep history and passions, but also a perceived stepladder for advancement for an underprivileged constituency.
This is the equivalent of one of the rural and predominantly African-American high schools in Texas, from the Buzz Bizzinger book and subsequent television adaptation Friday Night Lights, suddenly up and waving a flag and saying “no more football.”